THE INTERNATIONAL break couldn’t be better timed for Boro. The Mogganaut looked to be running out of steam for a spell against Coventry in a very ragged start to the second half and suddenly a leaden legged Boro were left chasing a game that should have been in the bag.
Boro dominated in the first 45 and should have been well ahead. At the break, with Derby and Southampton losing, we were on top of the league for the first time since Bryan Robson’s side surged towards promotion in 1997-98 fired up by righteous anger after the three points row.
They game should have been safe by then. Justin Hoyte rattled the woodwork and there were some long spells of pressure that should have yielded more. Even then it was comfortable. But a sluggish start to the second half allowed Coventry to gain a foothold, block Boro’s free passage down the flanks and start to pop up in dangerous areas.
Their equaliser was scrappy and a bit spawny. Carl Ikeme did well to come out and connect with a good ball in but his punch fell short leaving unmarked O’Donovan to get a shot off. Even then McManus did well to slide in and block but a freak rebound looped up kindly – we are in Secret Millionaire territory here – for Jutkiewicz to bundle home. It was their only real chance.
A year ago Coventry would have pushed on to win. But this is a different Boro. We finished in charge again and should have salvaged it. Hoyte broke into the box then inexplicably stumbled as the enormity of being in the box and bearing down on goal struck, Bennett fired into the side netting when he had options on, Robson and McMahon spurned decent efforts and at the death Faris Haroun nodded onto angle of bar and post. We should have won.
But it was a game too far for a thin squad after a busy month. It is hard to keep up the tempo they set in games for the full 90, and it is hard for Marvin Emnes to do all the work on his own up front. He is fast and tricky and can hold the ball up well and create space but without extra bodies bursting into the box there are very few options on. He needs support.
The team were adequate without sparking into the kind of life we saw at Barnsley. They pressed without having the zest of recent weeks. Julio Arca looked off the pace. Rhys Williams looked a bit short. It was just a little bit flat. But August has been a tough month. Seven games with roughly the same first 14 or so players has been demanding – but productive.
That we come away disappointed from a draw at the end of an unbeaten August shows exactly how far our expectations have been transformed. Before the season started most Boro fans were digging in for a long hard mid-table slog. In fact we have been flying. And enjoying entertaining football played at pace and with purpose. We have been allowed a glimpse of hope and ambition, which is always dangerous.
The break comes at a good time. It will allow tired legs to rest, bumps and bruises to heal, batteries to be recharged. It will allow Scott McDonald to be patched up and the gaffer to bring in another striker (or two) and if there is another one out – Bates seems favourite – maybe also to fine-tune at the back too.
We could have been top tonight. We are not and that is disappointing – but let’s be honest, if at the start we were offered fourth place, an unbeaten start, and stats like six away wins on the bounce and one defeat in 19 and some of the revelatory football we have seen, we would all have snatched their bloody hands off.